The Australian Government is under an international microscope with building pressure from the United Nations to raise the age of criminal responsibility.
The international pressure came from more than 30 countries as a part of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights, which takes place every five years.
Countries raised concerns about Australia’s delay to raise the age of criminal responsibility, something experts say is linked to Australia’s high rates of incarceration of Indigenous people.
Several countries disputing Australia’s criminal age submitted questions in advance to the review, with many focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights.
Sweden asked what measures were taken “to reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people in Australian prisons and, on a federal level, abolish the status of fully unpaid fines as a basis for prison sentences”.
Uruguay sought an update on Australia’s progress since the last universal periodic review “to reduce the imprisonment of Indigenous citizens and the results achieved to date”.
The UK questioned how the Australian Government planned “to work with and listen to Indigenous Elders and leaders to provide a national Voice to Parliament for Indigenous people”.
Indigenous children are currently disproportionately represented in the justice system, with an average 835 per 100,000 Indigenous children aged 10-14 on youth justice supervision orders compared to the 28 per 100,000 non-Indigenous children.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s 2019 figures, approximately 600 children under the age of 14 across the country are in our prisons every year, some as young as 10-years-old.
Many countries were also concerned about Australia’s border policies, offshore processing and Australia’s refusal to resettle people who arrived by boat. Some representatives called on the Federal Government to ensure its approach did not breach international law.
Australian Law Council President Dr Jacoba Brasch QC said Indigenous children are some of the most vulnerable children in society who frequently experience issues such as parental incarceration, homelessness, neglect and poor health.
“It is unconscionable that in 2021 Australia, while a child under 13 years cannot sign up for a Facebook account; cannot board a plane unsupervised if under 12 but children as young as 10, can be found to be criminally responsible, charged with a crime and kept in detention,” she said.
“The Law Council is not discounting that there are some legitimate concerns held amongst some parts of the community about community safety and juvenile crime.”
Dr Brasch said while the Law Council is not discounting legitimate concerns held by parts of community about juvenile crime, the evidence “strongly suggests” having a low criminally responsible age of 10 does not work.
“It does not make our communities safer, because it fails to prevent reoffending or to rehabilitate children. It does not make the children themselves safe.”
Dr Brasch said the Law Council believes in an alternative health and welfare-based response to incarceration, including policies and programs to maximise rehabilitation and addressing children’s underlying issues and needs.
The Aboriginal Legal Service of WA (ALSWA) has since condemned the Western Australian Government for having the highest incarceration rate of First Nations peoples globally.
“Surely it is embarrassing for Australia to be criticised for its treatment of First Nations peoples on the world stage? When is the Australian Government going to step up and change this situation?” said ALSWA Acting CEO Robyn Ninyette.
“We urge the WA Government to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years of age. Kids should be in playgrounds and classrooms, not locked up in cells.”
Australia’s Council of Attorneys-General have been working on the issue since 2018 but deferred a decision to raise the age last year, saying more work needed to be carried out before the current system is adjusted.
By Darby Ingram